On one little island somewhere in the middle of the ocean, the measure of a man’s courage and resolve is his willingness to jump head first from a rickety wooden tower with vines tied around his feet. In Germany, a truly brave individual will apply for municipal permission to paint a house a different colour from the rest of the neighbourhood. In Namibia, men gather around the campfire late at night and boast about the roads they have driven.
Although Namibia has an excellent network of tarred roads linking all major centres and gravel roads leading to farm turn-offs and smaller centers, there are other roads which only very brave men and tourists travel upon.
Namibia’s tarred roads are very good. In fact they are so good that you may find yourself wishing that a couple of potholes could be installed here and there so that you could know for certain that you were in Africa. However, tarred roads are kept in excellent condition and road crews appear at the first sign of any damage.
Road crews slow you down just as effectively but not quite as often as potholes, and are better for your car and Namibia’s economy. Given their important task, it is customary to always be friendly and polite to members of a road crew.
The verges of roads outside of towns are cleared of bushes, trees and very tall grass. This is to give drivers a better chance of seeing animals on the side of the road. Larger antelope, particularly Kudu, are as unpredictable, stupid and dangerous as drunken drivers, albeit more sober. Drivers should keep a close eye on the side of the road and slow down at the first sign of an animal.
Namibia’s larger gravel roads are also kept in as good a condition as the weather, wind and the speed of a grader permits. Occasionally heavy rains, strong winds and continuous use will wear away the top layer of sand and gravel. Under these circumstances, it is pointless to play CDs, and the elderly may wish to remove dentures, unless using industrial strength dental glue. As always, the road will be repaired as soon as the road crew arrives.
The roads which capture the imagination of the men around the fire are those which aren’t visited by road crews. These are usually nothing more than tracks leading through the thickest bush, long stretches of soft sand or the rockiest terrain to remote farmsteads, the smallest villages and some of the most wonderful places in Namibia.
Driving these roads takes skill, determination, patience and kidneys of steel. In fact, it may actually be safer to drive alongside the road in places, but only for seasoned off-road drivers.
Perhaps the best known of these roads is the road to Red Drum in Kaokoland. For years, unsuspecting travelers followed the map and track to Red Drum, expecting to find fuel, a cold beer and some rest. What they found instead was a red 40-gallon drum, a disconnected telephone, a take-out menu, and nothing more. The drum was placed there so that explorers could orient themselves in the featureless landscape of Kaokoland. Everything else was put there for fun. Red Drum has been removed from newer maps for the safety of travelers who don’t know its significance, but its location is still known.
If you listen carefully to the men around the fire, you will realize that they seldom talk much about their destination. Their stories are almost always about the roads. The truth is that their journeys are what they best remember.
It is possible to fly from destination to destination, but the roads are as much a part of the attraction and beauty of Namibia as the destinations to which they lead.
It is well worth the small effort to travel the tarred highways and the gravel roads. The other roads should only be traveled in the company of a Namibian guide who is experienced in off-road driving. Expect slow progress and possible delays to change tyres. Don’t expect to arrive anywhere in a hurry, and enjoy the journey while it lasts.